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Monday, August 29, 2011

How I Got My First Agent--and How You Can, Too

Last post I made the case for agents (and explained why you may or may not need one). The next step--who do you choose? When I was looking for an agent, I started with Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents, which is updated annually, and made a master list of possibilities, keeping the following factors in mind:

Did the agent represent the type of book I was writing? My first book idea was about how to sustain long-distance romantic relationships, so I looked for agents who represented other relationship, popular psychology, and self-help titles.

How long had the agent been in business? I didn’t want an inexperienced agent, so I looked for ones who had been agents for at least ten years. [Today, though, with all of the changes in the publishing world, I'd focus more on how the agent had performed in the last several years.]

Was the agent located in New York? No, an agent doesn’t have to live in New York, but it's a plus when it comes to face-to-face meetings and keeping tabs on the publishing industry.

Was the agent a member of the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR)? Members of AAR are expected to adhere to its Canon of Ethics, which provides, among other things, that agents will not charge reading fees for potential clients. (Many writers have been duped by less than reputable “agents” who agree to evaluate and/or market a manuscript—for a fee of hundreds, even thousands, of dollars.)

How many clients did the agent represent? I didn’t want an agent who only had a handful of clients, but I didn’t want a huge agency either. I thought between twenty and fifty would be a good number.

What was the agent’s philosophy toward his or her business? Did the agent sound like someone I’d like to work with?

Had I heard anything else about this agent? I’d seen several agents present at conferences, for example, and knew a few book authors who had agents. Several seemed like they might be the kind of person I’d like to work with; others didn’t sound like a good fit, at least not for me.

Considering these factors, I made a list of about forty agents. Then I headed to the bookstore, where I checked out the relationship/self-help books. I’d looked at the current titles before, when I was working on the competition analysis section of my book proposal. Now, I checked the Acknowledgments sections of books similar to mine—authors almost always thank their agents, and book editors, by name.

[Today, it's a lot easier. Check out the following websites for the scoop on potential agents:

  • Agent Query. Informative resources includes agent info along with advice about submitting work, advice for writers, and general publishing info.
  • Preditors and Editors.This site lists hundreds of agents and gives "recommended" and "not recommended" ratings.
  • Publishers Marketplace. PM is the site if you're serious about writing books. Members can search for agents here; while the popular Publisher's Lunch email is free, for $20/month, you can access all of the site's info. Invaluable for searching for recent agent deals.
  • Writers' Free Reference. Includes hundreds of agents' email addresses.]

After my bookstore search, I added a few names to my master list, then went through it and selected my top eight choices. I sent letters out to this group. (The letter I used is included in chapter 8.) Within several weeks, four passed and three asked to see the proposal. One letter came back to me—the agent had moved, so I sent her a letter at her new address. [Note that this was before email became the preferred method of contact.] Out of those three who responded, one agent wanted me to radically rework the proposal, one thought it was too narrow in scope to sell, and one never got back to me.

I was about to send letters to my next batch of possibilities when I heard from Laurie Harper, the agent who had relocated. She asked to see the proposal. I sent it to her and she called me within a week to tell me she loved it and wanted to represent me.

I'd heard positive things about Laurie, and we seemed to connect when we spoke by phone. I asked her about her current clients, how much contact she liked to have with her authors, and how she planned to sell my book idea. In turn, she asked me about my overall career plans and what I was considering for my second book. Her interest in my long-term goals (something I hadn’t given much thought to at the time) was one of the reasons I decided to sign with her. She played an integral role in my career for nearly 10 years.

The takeaway? Don't rush into a relationship with an agent. Put together a list of possibilities, do your homework, and choose the one who's right for you.

Readers, what do you think? Did you find this post helpful? If you have other questions about agents, post a comment and I'll be happy to help.

***Want to adding ghosting to your repertoire? I'll be offering my my online ghostwriting class? I'm offering mine again in September; stay tuned!

***This post was adapted from my book, Six-Figure Freelancing: The Writer's Guide to Making More Money (Kindle edition).